Quick question: what makes a man? Is it, as the Big Lebowski famously quipped, “the ability to do the right thing?” In that context, manhood is defined through deeds and actions, but is that all there is to being a man? After all, the idea of a blanket definition of “masculinity” in the 21st century is patently absurd, resting as it does on the assumption that human identities can be shaped by a singular cultural experience or molded via the reigning social values that are inevitably dictated by those who hold power in any given society. The former sentence is a highfalutin way of saying that men, just like women, are all individuals who develop in a vast number of ways depending on a vast number of experiences. The idea of complexity in gender identity, however, has historically not meshed well with rather simplistic cultural notions of American masculinity.
American manhood has historically been associated with testosterone-drenched ideals of toughness, rugged individualism, peer validation through violence, and the projection of white male dominance over non-white peoples such as blacks and Indians. This image of the domineering (white) American male has been hard to shake over the decades, and it still occupies a particularly prominent gleam in the eyes of American conservatives who are always eager to use their ideological hammers on what they see as an ever-expanding number of nails.
Case in point: a recent ad for the Affordable Health Care (or Obamacare, if you will) insurance exchange has gotten the usual rogues’ gallery of conservative loony toons all riled up. The ad features an image of a scrawny hipster sipping hot chocolate in his pajamas alongside the tagline of “Wear pajamas. Drink hot chocolate. Talk about getting health insurance.” The right-wing, America’s perpetually simmering caldron of self-persecution and undeserved entitlement, went apoplectic over the supposed insult to real American masculinity that the derisively labeled “Pajama Boy” allegedly represents.
Let’s examine some examples, shall we? Jonah Goldberg — the dough-faced, more Stay Puft than Chuck Norris National Review writer who only got a job on the wingnut welfare train because his Mom worked as a long time conservative campaign troll — whined that “there are plenty of gay dudes — and women! — who are vastly more masculine than Pajama Boy. Pajama Boy doesn’t exude homosexuality; he gives off the anodyne scent of emasculation.” Rich Lowry, another National Review editor and self-appointed conservative He-Man, took time out from mixing Sarah Palin pictures with hand cream and tissues to call “Pajama Boy” “an insufferable man-child” who “might be glad to pay more for his health insurance to include maternity benefits he doesn’t need as a blow against gender stereotyping.”
Goldberg and Lowry’s implications are clear: “Pajama Boy” is not the mythical, rock-ribbed alpha male who tamed the American frontier. Instead, they view the guy in the ACA ad as decidedly feminine (and therefore, weak); hence Lowry’s claim that Pajama Boy would support maternity benefits and Goldberg’s assertion that he represents “emasculation.” Conservative ideology is, in large part, projected through a hierarchical lens that views patriarchal dominance of women and non-white minorities as the essence of true manhood. Thus, Pajama Boy, despite being a fictional ad-campaign construction, represents the retrenchment of a conservative-approved American masculinity defined by whiteness, toughness, heterosexual virility, and the use of capitalism and nationalism to dominate minority populations. Pajama Boy, as National Review writer Charles Cooke complains, is a “vaguely androgynous…carefully ambi-racial” threat to the primacy of American manhood because he is neither definitively white nor definitively male.
The image of American masculinity as longed-for by Goldberg, Lowry, and Cooke goes back a long way in U.S. history and demonstrates how, as historian Anthony Rotundo notes, “manliness is a human invention” rather than a naturally occurring state.* Sociologist Michael Kimmel writes in Manhood in America: A Cultural History that “we cannot fully understand American history without understanding masculinity,” a history that has been “shaped by the efforts to test and prove manhood” via “the wars we Americans have waged, the frontier we have tamed…[and] the leaders we admire.”* Indeed, it’s no stretch to view much of American history as one protracted dick-measuring contest.
Kimmel describes two major shifts in American manhood that, over time, have butted heads to create a frustrating ideal of masculinity that is rife with paradoxes, yet remains an ideal which white American males have struggled to emulate. In the early 19th century, Kimmel writes, “American manhood was rooted in landownership (the Genteel Patriarch) or in the self-possession of the independent artisan, shopkeeper, or farmer.” This ideal of a real man-as-independent provider and tradesman stems from the frontier history of the early U.S., in which white, Anglo males culturally tested their testosterone-laced mettle against the imposing wilderness and the Indians that inhabited it in order to establish themselves as virtuous, freedom-loving yeomen.*
But the Market Revolution that accelerated in the 1830s challenged this early masculine ideal. Caught up in a new world in which consumer spending and business acumen replaced frontier ruggedness, “American men began to link their sense of themselves as men to their position in the volatile marketplace, to their economic success,” Kimmel notes, “a far less stable yet far more exciting and potentially rewarding peg upon which to hang one’s identity.” Yet the tying of masculine identity to the whims of a modern industrial market society separated American manhood from its original ideal of independent, frontier-taming machismo, and white American men have struggled to come to terms with this change ever since. “The Self-Made Man of American mythology was born anxious and insecure, uncoupled from the more stable anchors of landownership or workplace autonomy. Now manhood had to be proved,” Kimmel writes.* And so the proving continues, as American men, especially conservatives, struggle to live up to a Davy Crockett ideal in a world where the frontier is now lined with Targets, Wal-Marts, and gut-expanding Taco Bells.
Conservatives who criticize images like “Pajama Boy” are, in fact, trying to reconcile the success of consumer capitalism, of which they are the most vocal champions, with the inevitable taming of the frontier and the distinctive loss of independent manliness that a market society has wrought. There are no more frontiers; no more wildernesses left for anxious men like Jonah Goldberg and Charles Cooke to try to conquer. Picking out hormone-stuffed zombie meats from Super Wal-Mart freezers has long since replaced hunting for game. Sitting in endless, smog spewing suburban traffic jams has long since replaced westward wilderness expansion. Televised NFL games have long since replaced Indian battles. And the rise of a high-tech economy means that supposedly effete men like “Pajama Boy” now count as top providers and the gender income gap is closing to the point where more American women are now family breadwinners.
It’s perhaps fitting that John Wayne, the symbol of conservative, 20th century American manhood, was a product of Hollywood fakery as opposed to real life exploits. The rugged, domineering, white American male has now been thoroughly homogenized into just another product to be hocked by consumer culture and purchased by insecure men who have no choice but to buy their machismo from a store.
So what are apprehensive toadstools like Goldberg, Lowry, and Cooke supposed to do in a society where their precious white male egos can no longer authentically thrive? Well, they spend their time spinning fantasies in which a fictional ACA advertising figure symbolizes the collective butthurt they feel over slowly losing their privileged white male status to women, minorities, and the “carefully ambi-racial” Pajama Boy. So to these fellers I say suck it up: you made your consumer marketplace beds, now you have to sleep in them. It’s the new American way.
* See Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era (New York: Basic, 1993), 1.
* See Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History (New York: Free Press, 1996), 2, 9.